Thursday, April 16, 2009

You have 1-3 turns left to live...

"Otherwise, the rot grubs will burrow to the heart and kill their host in 1-3 turns." 
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, p. 83. 

One to three turns. That's 10-30 minutes. That is not a lot of time to get rid of those rot grubs... but it's a hell of a sight better than 1-3 minutes (1-3 rounds) would be. In classic D&D, turns and rounds are different. This is an easy distinction to overlook, but paying attention to it could make all the difference in the world to that greedy adventurer who's been digging through offal in search of treasure (yes, even though he kind of deserves the bit of trouble he's in). 

I love the 10 minute game turn in D&D as much as I love the combat round. But my impression is that it isn't one of the most beloved distinctions in the game. I should probably start by admitting that I never paid much attention to the difference between rounds and turns myself when I first learned the game as a kid, even though I learned from one of the best versions of D&D for taking turns seriously -- Mentzer's BECMI. It was only two years ago, when I first started playing classic D&D again, that I first started actually seeing how much the turn/round distinction can add to the rhythm of play, and I couldn't believe what I'd been missing. 

Turns are the rhythm of dungeon adventuring that underlies movement through the dungeon, dwindling torches, decisions about when (and what) to spend time on a search, trap finding, spell durations, and decisions about when to take time to rest. And it is a foreboding rhythm as well -- the drumbeat of passing turns heralds wandering monster checks. Wandering monsters are checked once per turn in OD&D ("Underworld & Wilderness Adventures," p. 10), once every three turns in Holmes Basic (also p. 10), once every second turn in B/X (Basic Rulebook, p. B53), BECMI (Basic Set, DM's Rulebook, p. 3 and p.48), RC (p. 29), at the DM's discretion in AD&D (AD&D1, p. 38), and once per hour in AD&D2, with a note that dangerous regions of the dungeon might require checks as often as, yes, once per turn (AD&D2, DMG, p. 101). 

Different versions of D&D emphasize the distinction to varying degrees, with the B/X, BECMI, RC line marking its strongest showing. But throughout classic D&D, it's there. I like to use it and make sure the players know that I'm using it. By setting out a few clear benchmarks for how long certain adventuring and exploring actions take, players have to weigh carefully how they spend there time. Is it worth checking every 10' square for traps when wandering monsters are about? How much time do you really want to put into searching this room thoroughly? If you go much deeper into the dungeon, will you have enough torches left to get back out? 

Turns give structure to an otherwise unstructured activity (moving through and exploring the dungeon), and I can see that it's an activity that DMs and players have apparently tended to approach more loosely. For all Gary Gygax's admonitions about the importance of timekeeping both outside and inside the dungeon (pp. 37-38 of the DMG), the turn system isn't given the prominence in AD&D that it has in the Basic lines, nor is it integrated as tightly with other sub-systems. By AD&D 2nd edition, turns are mentioned only occasionally in the game text. And they're gone for good in 3e (and so, of course, 4e). 

I'd be interested in hearing whether other people have made much use of the round versus turn distinction, and with what editions. The B/X -> BECMI -> RC line has turns built into so many of the spell durations (Sleep lasts 4d4 turns, Hold Portal 2d6 turns, Detect Magic 2 turns) that I assume a lot of people kept them alive there. But I'm very curious about how widely people have used turns to track time, movement, and searching in the dungeon, where I find them an invaluable addition to the game. 


  1. I take tracking turns pretty seriously in the dungeon, with the required rests and wandering monster checks. I used to keep a turn-tracker worksheet behind the screen, but now I keep it all in my head. That means I occasionally miss a torch going out or something like that, but one less worksheet keeps the game going along at a better rate.

  2. Cool. I can definitely see the value of keeping it in your head. It's one less thing to be writing down, and if a round here or there slips by, that may actually be a good thing. It adds a bit of realism and unpredictability to the pattern (not everything is exact), and the players can't quite depend on counting every turn one-for-one. They can focus instead on, well, on adventuring, though always with the passing of time at the back of their minds.

    I tend to track turns using hash marks on an index card, the same card I use to track monster hit points and so on. I think I tend to fall out of the rhythm from time to time a bit myself. So far, I like sticking with the card because it means we can look back and say things like, "Wow, they spent seven and a half hours in the dungeon on that expedition?" I never get tired of that, for some reason.

  3. "Wow, they spent seven and a half hours in the dungeon on that expedition?" I never get tired of that, for some reason.Yeah, that is awesome. That leads to another big advantage of an actual record:

    "You exit the dungeon. It's darkest night, the moon is full, and in the distance you hear the howling of what you hope are perfectly normal wolves."